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My MIKE MULLIGAN Moment...And Werner Herzog's

December 20, 2012 02:56 PM ET | Eric Levin | Permanent Link

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I hope parents still read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel to their kids, as mine read it to me when I was little. I still love that book.

This morning I discovered that Mike Mulligan has another, perhaps surprising fan in Werner Herzog—the German director and writer of compelling, disturbing, wholly original movies like Fitzcarraldo, Stroszek and Aguirre, the Wrath of God and brooding, incredibly penetrating documentaries like Grizzly Man. In fact, if you click, you can actually listen to Herzog read Mike Mulligan out loud.

Mike Mulligan
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton, 1939

Virginia Lee Burton published Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel in 1939—the thick of the Great Depression, when its story of heroic resolve surely resonated with adults and children struggling through hard times.

I was blissfully unaware of those associations when my Mike Mulligan moment arrived in the mid-to-late 1950s. I fell in love with the plucky, hard-working, anthropomorphic red steam shovel him/itself.

Perhaps in some small way Mike Mulligan spurred my lifelong fascination with construction sites and construction equipment—a recurring subject in my photography...

As for instance, today's PLAIN SIGHT, taken with my iPhone at a construction site in Morristown.

To me it is touchingly anthropomorphic—the baby machine peeking out from the shelter of the Daddy machine's strapping legs. As I looked at it that way this morning, a name sprang to mind for the first time in half a century: Mike Mulligan!

In any event, you must listen to the great director imbue this lovely bedtime story for little boys with his somber, Germanic cadences, turning it into a strange, gripping, haunting tale that is pure Werner Herzog.

And if you'd like to meet dear old Mike Mulligan, Virginia Lee Burton's dauntless, smoke-puffing hero, click here.

Steam-powered excavation machines were headed for the scrap heap by the time Burton's book was published. Like dinosaurs, they probably had been dying off for years. But when I see the modern equivalent—some huge Caterpillar or Manitowoc hydraulic crawler crane with lattice boom—only two words come to mind:


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Tags: Morristown | photography | construction sites

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